Smoltz 'floored' by Lincecum's success in bullpen
John Smoltz: "I had been pretty successful as a starter. I loved the role and I was good at it. Why would anyone want to change?" (USA TODAY IMAGES)
ATLANTA – Few pitchers in baseball history made the transition from dominant starter to dominant reliever as effectively as John Smoltz.
Yet when Smoltz watched Tim Lincecum slice through hitters in the postseason last October, he kept asking himself the same question.
“If I had to make that transition the way he did, with everything on the line, could I have done it?” said Smoltz, in an interview Friday at Turner Field. “I’m not sure.”
As CSN Bay Area reported two weeks ago, Lincecum already would be in the midst of his own transition to relief if the Giants felt confident about another pitcher who could replace him in the rotation. This winter, it’s possible Lincecum could get the best offer on the free-agent market from a team that projects him as a late-inning force.
[RELATED: Lincecum considers second career as reliever]
Smoltz said that option isn’t available for all starters. But he’s confident it’s a career path that is open Lincecum.
“What he did in the postseason was unbelievable,” Smoltz said of Lincecum, who held opponents to one run on three hits and struck out 17 in 13 innings over five appearances. “It’s one thing to do that. It’s another to do that when things aren’t going well, and to make that transition the way he did, when he did. I tip my hat.”
Smoltz was a 157-game winner with a Cy Young Award on the mantle when he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the 2000 season. When he returned the following year, he gained most of his innings in relief.
In 2002, the Braves asked him to transition to the ninth inning full-time. It’s not a role he embraced at first. And he guessed that Lincecum might feel the same way, for the same reasons.
“I think back to that role and it was nothing to gain and everything to lose,” he said. “I had been pretty successful as a starter. I loved the role and I was good at it. Why would anyone want to change?
“If you’re a starter and you’ve had success and you’re healthy, then you’ve got that pride that you’ll eventually figure it out.”
The fun part, Smoltz said, was being able to contribute to your team more often than every fifth day.
“What was not fun was not knowing when you’re going to pitch,” he said. “I liked structure, and so it was the greatest adjustment I went through in my life.”
He also liked to play golf on the road, and kept doing so after moving to relief. That was a topic of discussion among Braves officials and in the media.
"This is what I told the manager: 'If I can’t get three outs at 10 o'clock…'" Smoltz said, with a laugh. "I saved 55 games my first year and everybody stopped talking to me about playing golf."
What about his pitching mentality in relief? Did that change?
“I never left that starter mindset,” Smoltz said. “I never wanted to be that guy who said, "Here it is, see if you can hit it." If I was pitching a couple times in a series, I might be facing someone again. So I’d still do all the things I did as a starter, plant a seed here and there.
“But it’s different, sure. I like to say that starting is like driving the speed limit and closing is like getting into a dragster and letting it go.”
Smoltz eventually went back to starting, and led the league with 16 victories in 2006. He doesn’t rule out Lincecum succeeding in that role, too.
“He’s still got swing-and-miss stuff,” he said. "You just have to look at what he did in the postseason. With me, I had time to learn. It was all on-the-job training for me, and people forget it was pretty rough at the beginning. (Lincecum) didn't get any of that time."